Anytime a recipe calls for marinating a chicken, I get super excited. Marinating chicken adds a lovely flavor and alters the taste of the chicken and even transports you across the world in terms of cuisine.
Fancy some Indian food? Smother your chicken in a yogurt-garlic-garam masala marinade.
Want Italian for lunch? All you need is some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and oregano for a simple marinade.
Trying to curb your desire for Japanese takeout? Whip up some teriyaki sauce to marinate your chicken thighs in and it will be splendid.
But then comes the dilemma. How long can chicken marinate? Most people are led to believe that the longer they marinate their chicken the softer and more flavorful it gets. Right?
Wrong. I’m going to give the scoop on marinating times- the minimum time to marinate chicken, as well as the longest time you can leave your chicken in the marinade. But before that, let’s find out the true purpose of a marinade and the best way to marinate chicken.
What is Marination?
Marination (also called marinating) is the process of soaking foods like meat or veggies in a richly flavored liquid before cooking. Marinades tend to contain an acid (lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt), spices and aromatics, and a flavored oil like sesame, olive, or mustard.
Some marinades contain sauces such as soy, Worcestershire, or oyster. Others contain things like tahini or even purees made from whole peppers, garlic, onion, or nuts. Still, others contain beer or liquor for flavor. And of course, all marinades contain seasonings like salt and pepper.
Things like finely diced coriander, parsley, and mint also add lots of flavor to the chicken. You can also use fresh herbs like sage, basil, and rosemary as well.
A tenderizing meat marinade may include enzymatic ingredients such as pineapple or papaya as well. These ingredients contain enzymes that allow the breakdown of tough muscle fiber and collagen, further tenderizing the meat.
Dry marinades tend to be a mix of spices that is rubbed onto the meat. Sometimes a little oil or mustard is added to help the dry powders stick to the food better.
While marinades are used to add flavor to food, this isn’t their main purpose. Many people think the longer you marinate chicken, the more deeply the flavors can penetrate the meat. This is impossible because the marinade only seasons the surface of the chicken, no matter how long you marinate it.
Instead, marination has two main purposes.
- It tenderizes the meat, making it soft and giving it that melt-in-your-mouth texture. The acid in the marinade breaks down the tough tissue and fibers, allowing the meat to absorb moisture as well.
- The marinade coats the chicken and starts cooking as soon as it hits the heat. This protects the chicken from being overcooked or drying out. Moreover, the sugars in the marinade caramelize in the pan, browning the chicken and adding even more flavor.
The Best Chicken Marinade Flavors
Chicken, especially parts like the breasts and thighs, can be pretty bland on their own. This is where marinades give a massive flavor boost and prevent your chicken from being a boring or repetitive meal. If you don’t have time, you can easily get ready-made marinades. The best store-bought marinades for chicken include McCormick’s Grill Mates marinade in Mojito Lime, Garlic Herb & Wine, and Chipotle Pepper Mix.
But for next-level flavor and texture (and all the customizability), you’re better off making chicken marinades from scratch. Here are a few to get you started:
- Simple Garlic Paprika Marinade: Mix herbs like parsley and oregano into some olive oil, add as much finely minced garlic as you want, and season with salt and paprika. If you like spice, include red pepper flakes and freshly ground black pepper.
- Tandoori Marinade: This flavor-heavy marinade needs a cup of Greek yogurt, lime or lemon juice, turmeric and cayenne powder, 2-3 cloves of minced garlic, and some diced ginger. Finish it off by stirring in salt and garam masala powder according to how strong you want the seasoning to come through.
- Fajita Marinade: This Mexican-inspired marinade includes olive oil, white vinegar, lime juice, and a whole host of spices. Chili powder, ground cumin, paprika, garlic, onion, and black pepper powder make the chicken succulent and spicy.
- Honey Soy Marinade: Can honey tenderize meat? Yes, it can and that’s why it is the prime ingredient of this marinade.
Mix soy sauce, mirin, and sesame oil into the honey, followed by a splash of cider vinegar and lots of garlic. The best thing about this marinade? It doubles as a sauce to cook your chicken in later!
Health Benefits of Marinating Chicken
Believe it or not, there are health benefits to using chicken marinades. Let’s have a quick look at them.
- Marinating poultry, red meat, and fish greatly reduces the level of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HCAs) produced when the meat is fried or grilled at high temperatures. Marinades (especially those containing rosemary) can decrease HCAs by nearly 99 percent!
- The acids in marinating kill some kinds of harmful bacteria.
- Tenderizing ingredients in the marinade with things like acid, honey, or pineapple juice softens the meat and makes it easier to digest.
- Calcium in yogurt or buttermilk marinades activates enzymes in the chicken that help break down proteins.
Best Foods to Marinate
Chicken isn’t the only thing you can marinate. Here are a few other foods that you can transform by soaking them in a marinade:
- Lamb, beef, or pork.
- Tofu or seitan
- Paneer and certain hard cheeses
- Fish (whole or fillets)
- ‘Meatless’ meat substitutes
- Hardy vegetables like zucchini, carrots, potatoes, eggplants, and squash
When it comes to marinating steak, people are pretty divided on this. Should you marinate steak? This is a tricky question. Do you need to marinate steaks? No, steaks work fine just on their own.
Steak puritans are adamant that steaks should not be marinated. But if you want, you can marinate your steaks before grilling them or pan-frying them. This will add flavor, give you a better crust, and make it much more tender.
Making Healthier Chicken Marinades
If you’re on a diet or trying to eat healthier, some marinades can be off-limits. Things with lots of oil, sodium, or sugar are pretty unhealthy, especially when consumed regularly. Instead, you can try something that is less heart-attack-inducing.
As a simple rule, reduce the amount of marinade you make. If a recipe makes two cups of the marinade, just cut the recipe in half. As long as you coat all the surfaces of the meat, you still get all the flavor.
If your marinade recipe requires lots of sugar, molasses, or honey, reduce the amount called for. Cut it by half or even three-quarters. The same goes for sodium-heavy ingredients like oyster or soy sauce or even salt!
Make healthier marinades. Simple 3-or-4 ingredient marinade without lots of sugar, salt, or saturated fats is the best way to keep your chicken marinades healthy.
Just combine equal parts olive or avocado oil and lemon/lime juice and add aromatics and the seasoning of your choice. Things like fajita seasoning, tikka masala mixes, and Italian herb mixes are great places to start.
Simple Middle-Eastern-inspired marinades are also relatively healthy. You can use low-fat yogurt, olive oil, some lemon juice, and spices like turmeric, cumin, smoked paprika, ground cinnamon, and a touch of nutmeg.
Even something like a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, salt, pepper, and some mustard can add a ton of flavor to your chicken without all the pesky calories.
How Long Should You Marinate Your Chicken?
If you’ve made it this far, you know why marinades are used, their exact functions, and why they are good for you. You also have a beginner’s idea of marinade ingredients and combos and can build upon them with just a bit of work.
But the question remains: how long can chicken marinate? If the main purpose of the marinade is tenderizing the chicken, shouldn’t a longer marination yield softer, juicier meat? Many recipes tell us to marinate the chicken overnight, shouldn’t 24-48 hours be even better?
To put it simply, longer marination times are not ideal. The acids and enzymes in the marinade break down tough fibers and tenderize the meat, which makes it soft and melty after it’s cooked.
But if you keep it in the marinade for too long, it over-tenderizes the meat so that it has no texture and falls apart when cooking.
The result? Stringy, mushy chicken that is lumpy with no bite or texture.
Instead of melting in your mouth, you end up with a misshapen mess that looks and tastes gross. This also messes with the flavor and the texture will make your make seem tasteless.
What is the sweet spot then? Marinating your chicken anywhere from 30 minutes to 12 hours. You can go a little further if your meat is particularly tough, but marinating meat for over a day is overkill.
If you want to marinate lots of meat when meal prepping, marinating for a few hours and then freezing the meat in the marinade is the best idea, as it stops the marination.
The other reason is that marinating your meat in the fridge for over a day can turn your chicken into a breeding ground for bacteria. Storing raw chicken in the fridge for more than two days can give you food poisoning, so don’t risk it. You can get lots of flavor with just a quick 20-minute marination for chicken anyways!
Still Have Questions?
Here you’ll find answers to questions people tend to have about marinating chicken.
01. Can I Marinate Chicken for Too Long?
Marinating chicken for too long is definitely possible and will make your chicken lose its texture.
02. How Long Can I Safely Marinate Chicken in the Fridge?
You can safely marinate the chicken in your fridge for 24-48 hours. Anything longer and you risk an upset stomach or even food poisoning.
03. How Can I Tell If Marinated Chicken is Bad?
If your meat has the following signs, it has gone bad and needs to be thrown out:
- It feels slimy.
- There is a weird or funky smell coming from the chicken.
- There are spots of discoloration.
- The meat looks grayish.
- It’s been in the fridge for more than 2-3 days, or in the freezer for over 4 months.
04. Should I Marinate My Chicken Overnight?
Yes, overnight or 12-hour marination usually gives the best results for chicken.
05. How Long Does Marinated Chicken Last in the Fridge?
You can store marinated chicken in the fridge for 2 days or up to 48 hours before it goes bad.
So the Point is…
Cooking chicken can be a bit touchy as the line between undercooked and tough is a very fine one. Marinades help keep the chicken soft and tender while imparting lots and lots of flavor. At the same time, they help form the crisp browned surface we all know and love.
Now that you know everything there is to know about marinating chicken, you won’t ever ask ‘how long can chicken marinate?’ This, in turn, makes preparing meals much smoother and stress-free. Whether you want to grill chicken, roast it in an oven, or sear it in a skillet, marinating the meat will take your dish to the next level. Which kind of marinade will you try for dinner this week?